Interview: NRBQ’s Terry Adams Defines Music’s Spiritual Beauty

Interviews

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The band NRBQ just reissued their 1969 self-titled debut album last month, 49 years after its original release; and they also released an EP Happy Talk, with songs like Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” and Rogers & Hammerstein’s “Happy Talk,” last fall. When the Americana Highways road trip brought us to talk to the only original surviving member still touring with the band, Terry Adams, it was during this occasion of new creations mingling with some reflections from the past.

Happy Talk came out,” Adams said, “because I was reminded that there can be these great oldies songs that deserve to be played and heard, and I wanted to share that reminder.   I have such a love for that song from the musical South Pacific. I have a weakness for certain songs that may have seemed corny in the musicals or their original settings, but suddenly years later they make sense. And this one is kind of a theme song for me right now.”

We spoke right in the midst of the “Happy Talk” tour, which just ended this past Sunday. [To read our take on their show at the Ottobar in Baltimore, click on of these bolded words right here.]  “We are doing that song live on tour right now. That’s the newest thing, but the earliest thing, the NRBQ reissue, is significant for a similar reason. It was so good for me too to hear that album again. It serves as a reminder for me to check back in with the original spirit, and the original spirits of the band. It helps make sense out of today, going back and forth between the old and the new.” NRBQ is notorious for a couple of things; one of them is for the changing membership of the band, while the other is the way they stayed true to its basic foundation of light and merriment. The latter was in abundant evidence during the tour – you could see it in the energy of the band, the enthusiasm of the loyal fans, and the angelic aura around Adams himself.

On the occasion of a reissue of an album that was recorded 50 years ago (released 49 years ago) one immediately considers the physical changes that have taken place in the recording process since then—in the equipment and the approach. Adams recalled, “That studio we recorded at in 1969 had a 12-track recorder.   I have never seen one before or since; usually there is an 8 or 4, but they had it there at the record plant back in the late ‘60s. We recorded that one live and with first take.   And now, 50 years later, we still play live together in the studio. Nowadays people can record some and then plug back in later on, but it’s not the same. I can feel it when the musicians aren’t reacting to each other. It’s so much better when it’s the direct recording of an event. It’s not difficult to recreate that live environment for spontaneity in the studio, you just set up, and play. We still do it this way. Everyone’s there at the same time, and we play like we always do it.”

I emphasized that the band is known for being spontaneous, and Adams said, ”That’s just it: we want something to happen that we didn’t know was going to happen. Not everyone can do that, but that’s the way we do it. It’s good for us to surprise ourselves, to keep happy and keep inspired.”

At the time we talked it was a day or two before they played at Bearsville Theater in Woodstock, NY. “We are playing at Woodstock soon, we used to live very close to there, so we have a history there. We lived in Saugerties, we recorded many albums there at Bearsville Studio. We did several of our albums there in the ‘70s and ‘80s: All Hopped Up, Tiddlywinks, Grooves in Orbit, NRBQ at Yankee Stadium. That studio was founded by Albert Grossman in 1969; it’s closed now. It’ll be real nice to be in the area to play again, though. It’s fun to go back and see old friends now.”  Thinking of old friends, he added, “John Sebastian has a long history there too; the band goes way back with him and we’ve done a lot of things with him, some Lovin’ Spoonful special shows.”

The conversation turned to the clavinet.   Clavinet is not a particularly common instrument, so the fact that Adams plays one is immediately intriguing. “Clavinet is a unique instrument to play. They stopped making them in 1978. They are fragile — they have to be tuned every night — but there’s nothing like them. I’ve been playing them since they were first invented. It’s a stringed instrument, things are vibrating in there, you can feel the string vibrating underneath the keys. For me it was the perfect solution to have come along in the ‘60s because I didn’t want to play portable organ, and pianos weren’t loud enough.”

“I don’t play it like everybody else, I think of it more as a guitar. I think like a guitar player. I feel certain that being a guitar player would have been nice too. Scott Ligon, our guitarist, he is one of those guys who can play both instruments, Casey [McDonough] too, our bassist. I think like a guitarist too.” Anyone who has seen NRBQ live knows that it’s indeed true that Adams does not play the clavinet in standard piano player’s form, his hands curl on approach to pluck the keys, almost like he is grasping the extensions of the strings below.  And although Adams modestly claims he’s not the multi-instrumentalist in the band, the band is known to switch instruments, and he’ll hop on drums for songs like “Red River Rock,” while drummer John Perrin hops on the keys.

When I wondered how he learned to play that way, Adams said, “I played some trumpet in the 4th grade, and I wound up playing piano and being in a band. I studied composition. I wanted to know what the structure of music was. Listening to records too. I’ll listen to all music, I’d listen to anything. That was my school, the school of listening.”

In response to my question as to whether he had any advice to aspiring young musicians today, Adams said: “My advice is about the inspiration that would make you want to be making music. What is your reason for it? Don’t let go of it if you want to play music. But if you are doing it because you’ve seen something on tv or you want to be like someone, for example if you are watching some of these dancing shows, that might not be a strong enough reason. The only reason to make music, and keep making music, is the sound. What is the sound communicating to you? The sound is communicating something to you, and if you are compelled to share the message of the sound with others that’s the reason to keep doing it. If you are asking yourself: “How can I best put that back out to inspire someone else?” then you should keep doing it.”

Adams shows his sense of music as spiritual, by adding: “Making music should be like food; the more real something is, the better it is for our spirits.”

“Music has a particular effect. Music has powers that no one really understands what it can do. The music business tries to figure it out and take it apart and analyze it in the most profitable way. They dissect music and take it apart to try to create songs by formula, and they lose its essence.”

“Before electricity, you had to be in front of the performer and the person playing it, it must have been amazing, those barn dances and things. But now its around us all the time, and because of these technological inventions — which are great because we would never have heard so much different music — but it also has a down side, of people trying to control it to make a profit, and leave the spirit behind, at which point it starts to become “paint by numbers.””

As a comment on the distinction between the business and what inspires Adams and NRBQ, he offers: “Sun Ra once said “There are three planes of music: the academic plane, the commercial plane, and the spiritual plane; and I make music on the spiritual plane.” And that’s my feelings exactly. That’s why we’re here and that’s what keeps up inspired, and keeps us going.”

“For any form of art the purpose is ultimately to create beauty. If you think of times where environmental catastrophes have occurred, where the land is barren. But there you see it, suddenly a small plant is growing in a crack between concrete, once again you see it, beauty: a flower comes out of nowhere. That’s what makes you feel good, that’s what life is. We as artists have that opportunity to create beauty in spite of what may be going on around us in the world. And sometimes you have to have blinders to be able to keep smiling. Producing that beauty, that’s what’s important to us.“

What’s on the horizon for Terry Adams and NRBQ? “We’re going to take some time off after this tour and get ready to record toward the end of summer.   We have a new full length album coming up.” Another one.  Keep track of their plans, and get their albums, here.  http://www.nrbq.com/

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